Tag Archives: Mishima

A slight Mishima novella appearing in English now

Writer Mishima Yukio appeared as a yakusa (gangster) in the 1960 movie “Karakkazeyaro”/“Afraid to Die.” He was not born with movie-star good looks and worked very hard to build up his body.

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Rikio, the protagonist of hi very slight s novella “Star” that has just made its way into English is only 24 and very good-looking without having to work on building up his body. He is like Mishima in being preoccupied with suicide and not wanting his body to age—obsessions that dovetailed in Mishima’s public suicide in 1970. Mishima was not a movie star, though the character he imagined was.

Rikio is plenty narcissistic, though it is difficult to imagine anyone exceeded Mishima himself in narcissism.

Rikio disdaines the unattractive women who are his fan base (one of whom tries to crash into the movie he is shooting), though his constant companion is not a beautiful actress, but his blowsy assistant. There is no indication that he has sex with her. Indeed, he may be a virgin.

Part of his attitude to his fans is “I’d much rather have a girl masturbating to my picture than actually trying to sleep with me. Real love always plays out at a distance.” I have my doubts that the second sentence could have come from Rikio,

After one picture is wrapped, Rikio goes to the studio barber and sees a great matinee idol of the past whose looks are now maintained by trickery. Rikio is determined not to outlive his attractiveness.

I don’t know why this novella has been published in English now. Its themes are better developed in Mishima works translated during his lifetime. The other 2019 publication of a previously untranslated (into English) Mishima novella, Frolic of the Animals, is longer and more substantive.

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Mishima’s Frolic of the Animals

Had I not known that Frolic of the Beasts (originally published in Japanese in 1961 as Kemono no Tawamure) was by Mishima, I’d have guessed it was by Tanazaki. It is, perhaps, not kinky enough to be Tanizaki fiction, and warped relationships were by no means missing in Mishima’s works translated into English sooner. But there are no suicides. There is an attempt to maintain purity from carnal desire, a refusal to enact the frolicking beasts that the husband longs to watch.

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I found the opening of the book quite confusing, but the reader learns why Kôji is in prison relatively soon. A university student, he had been employed by a dandyish former professor turned merchant, Ippei. Ippei, “who may have lost his, [but] made use of the youth of others,” was a flagrant womanizer, eager to make his beautiful young wife, Yûko jealous (Ippei is the very Tanizaki character for me). She refuses him the satisfaction, though she discreetly hires a private detective and knows what he is up to.

The three of them and Ippei’s current main mistress are together. Ippei twice knocks Yûko to the floor and Kôji brings a wrench down on Ippei’s skull (also twice), after which Ippei is paralyzed on his right side.

Yûko takes over a set of greenhouses that supply orchids etc. When Kôji is released from prison (17 months, even though his attack was ruled to have been premeditated—which it was not, at least not by him!) he goes to live and work at the enterprise. He is intent not to have sexual congress with Yûko, who is sometimes teasing, sometimes needy, and cares for her disabled husband.

A typhoon threatens and we learn that the other employee raped his daughter after his wife died. Plus there is another triangle interlude centering on a ukulele (the daughter works in a ukulele factory). This inner(-narrative) triangle has some relationship to the 14th-century nô play (Motemazuka) the translator, Andrew Clare, believes Mishima was parodying.

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There is so much description of settings that I find it hard to think the story derives from a nô play. Moreover, the fiction is followed by an epilogue (for me the best part of the book) in which Mishima recounts how he heard the story and got somewhat involved (visiting the model for Yûko in prison, where his fiction does not consign her). The fictional priest does not resemble the one whom Mishima admired, btw.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Donald Keene in San Francisco, 1996

I went to a lecture by Donald Keene (born in Brooklyn in 1922) at the Miyako. He speaks entertainingly and modestly. He is even shorter than I imagined and has some New York accent. I think he’s probably a queen, but am not entirely certain.

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(Keene in 2002, photographed by Aurelio Asiain)

He said that the two people he’s known whom he considers geniuses are Arthur Waley and Mishima Yukio, because he can’t imagine how anyone can do what they did. Specifically, in Waley’s case, translate Genji monogatori, in Mishima’s, write non-stop in final form without correcting anything. He recalled a wartime student of Waley’s saying something about the ambiguities of Heian Japanese, and his being startled, exclaiming “I never found it so!” He also told someone that he thought it should be possible to learn Japanese in about a month. Even if he meant to learn to read Japanese for someone who could read Chinese, this is an astonishing estimate.

He finds Lafcadio Hearn repellent (racist) though an acute observer. In that his reminisces were about Americans discovering Japanese literature, I asked about The Chrysanthemum and the Sword as an explanation of Japanese culture to America. He didn’t answer my question about its role, but responded to my preamble, by saying that he has high regard for the book. When it was translated in Japanese, many Japanese were unhappy with it and tried to assail it, but have not shaken its foundations, which despite the great difficulties of working from America with Issei who mostly had left long ago, he considers generally sound, beautifully written, and an impressive accomplishment of understanding another culture.

He credits Kurosawa’s film of Rashomon with a major impetus to the “Japan boom” in America of the 1950s, along with Edward Seidenstecker’s translation of Some Prefer Nettles, and then the Zen fad. And he reiterated that the Nobel Prize was headed for Mishima and was sidetracked by a Northern European “expert” (who had spent two weeks in Japan and assumed from Mishima’s age that he must be a leftist!).

The contemporary female Japanese writer of whom he thinks highly (and considers likely to “last”) is Dazai’s daughter. Keene said that he mostly reads classical Japanese literature, and established writers. He regrets that he does not know the work of more younger writers (younger than Ôe Kenzaburo), but doesn’t think he can do more, only having two eyes…

© 26 February 1996, Stephen O. Murray

The second collection in English of Mishima stories

I read most of the major novels and the then-only collection of short stories in English translation (Death in Midsummer) by Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) long ago. I recently read Gogo No Eikô (translated as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea), which I found irremediably repellant — participating in, not just portraying cruelty, delusional belief systems, and evil. It was published in Japanese in 1963, as were three of the seven stories (two of novella length) in Acts of Worship, a 1989 collection of Mishima stories that had not previously been rendered in English.

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I disliked the ending of the 1963 novella “Sword” (Ken), which has some of the same youthful puritanical obsessions so that there are some adults with some control over the enthusiasm of the boys). I was amused by the ending of “Fountains in the Rain” (Ame no nake no funsui). I think it is ironic even beyond the titular spectacle of water shooting up from a fountain as water pours down from the heavens. Some of those who knew him have reported that the man Mishima had a sense of humor, but one is little evident in his work about obsessives often possessed of considerable arrogance. The boy who has forged a relationship with a girl for the pleasure of breaking up (and making her cry, also in the rain) is cruel and narcissistic, as many Mishima characters are. (He was acutely narcissistic, but seemingly not cruel himself.)

There is fairly prominent evidence that the macho bodybuilder recalled the sickly youth which he had been before he willed himself muscular (a path from sensitive ugly duckling to muscular swan of many a gay male in recent decades). Mishima claimed that Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku, 1948) was fiction and rarely let the mask slip thereafter. The collection translated by John Bester also includes the 1946 story “Cigarette” (Tabakao) that launched Mishima’s career as a writer, attracting the attention and sponsorship of Kawabata Yasunari (who would become the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature). It shows a frail youth desperate for acceptance from the young machos, and the worship of masculine strength that is central to the stuttering youth who will burn down the national treasure, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

The homoeroticism of a bond between a rough youth and a sensitive one is front and center in “Martyrdom” (Junkyo) from 1948. It is very “poetic,” in the not altogether positive sense (common in Japanese art) of making what happens mysterious. Like Sailor, the world of boys’ school dormitory dominance and submission/sadomasochism (complete with a “Demon King”) resonates with the proto-fascist world of Musil’s Young Tôrless.

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“Sea and Sunset” (Umi to yuyake, 1955) is set in medieval Japan, but its protagonist had been a shepherd in the Cévenne (in France) before joining the Children’s Crusade (the Fifth, ca. AD 1212), and, like many of the young would-be crusaders, being sold into slavery. Though not lacking in sadness, this is another story with ironies suggesting some sense of humor on the author’s part.

S&S is devoid of eroticism. The other 1963 story, the murky (or opaque) “Raisin Bread” (Budopan) drips eroticism with no evidence of any sense of humor. Its protagonist seeks to renounce the world and to influence a group of fellow young people (not unlike Mishima forging a private army while expressing despair about Japan in his last years).

The negative side of my ambivalence toward Mishima was flowering by the time I reached the start of the novella that closes the book and gave it its title, “Act of Worship” (Mikumane mode, 1965). It did not immediately hook me, but I was slowly forced to recognize that it is a masterpiece made with the unpromising materials of a plain woman and would-be poet who has served as housekeeper for a scholar-poet with a clique of followers. He takes her on a pilgrimage to three Shinto shrines in the vicinity of where he grew up (and has been avoiding for decades). While making perfect sense, the ending surprised me, in contrast to the schematic inevitability of Sailor, or the more forced unpleasant ending of “Sword.”

There are some interesting female characters in Mishima’s writings, for all his devotion to a cult (or cults) of masculism and suicide. In addition to the self-effacing subordinate in “Acts of Worship,” these include “Madame de Sade” (in the 1965 play named for her), and the vivacious proprietress of the restaurant in After the Banquet. For sure, Mishima did not dote on women as objects of worship in the manner of his predecessors Tanizaki and Kawabata, but he sometimes portrayed subjectivity and agency of women rather than just the arbitrariness of female actions or heterosexual female masochists. I’ll have to say that all three writers were obsessed with youths, though only Mishima refused to grow old himself…

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A romance with a happy ending from Mishima Yukio

Mishima Yukio (pen-name of Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-70) was a rising, if somewhat notorious (for the homoeroticism of Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors) Japanese novelist when he managed to journey to “the West” (east of Japan, the US, Brazil, France, Greece) in 1951-52. In Greece, he decided that his writing had been unrelievedly dark and set out to write a sunnier book, Japanizing Longus’s second century (CE) Hellenistic novel Daphnis and Chloe, which, though set on an island much smaller than Honshu (or, for that matter, the other three largest islands of the Japanese archipelago), concerned shepherds. The Sound of Waves/Shiosai, however, is set on (a fictionally renamed) Kamijima, a small island on the Ise coast.

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In Mishima’s novel young would-be lovers faced the sea, not any pastures. His Chloe, Hatsue, is an abaloneY diver, as is the mother of his Daphnis, Shinji, who is a fisherman. In Longus’s novel, the romantic leads are both foundlings; Shinji is raised by his mother who was widowed by US strafing of the boat in which her husband was fishing. Her father, Terukichi Miyata, had given Hatsue to adoption (ot pearl fishers) on another island, but recalls her when his son dies. He announces that he will adopt whomever marries Hatsue (marrying in and taking the wife’s patronym is a venerable way to maintain lineages in Japan, Taiwan, and southeastern China).

As in Longus, there are failed rapes, malicious false rumors, and Shinji has a dalliance with another woman, Chiyoko, the daughter of the lighthouse-keeper. Chiyoko is a student at the University of Tokyo and encourages Kawamoto Yasuo to rape Hatsue to make Shinji renounce his interest in Hatsue and focus on Chiyoko.

Rather inexplicably, Terukichi, hires both Shinji and Yasuo to work on one of his ships. (Terukuchi gets a letter from Chiyoko explaining what really happened, that Yasuo rather than Chinji had attempted to rape Hatsue later.) Chinji saves the ship in a storm, while Yasuo floundered. After that test, Tekuchi gives Chinji permission to marry Hatsue, and they live happily ever after.

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In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene explains that “apart from his general desire to depict the brighter side of human life, he wanted to prove that he could make the most hackneyed of stories come alive through his skill as a stylist. The enormous popularity of The Sound of Waves was a great surprise and even a disappointment” (being more acclaimed that work Mishima considered greater accomplishments, such as Kinkauji, Kyôkos House, and his final Sea of Fertility tetralogy; Robert Nathan’s biography of Mishima reports Mishima calling it a “joke on the public”). But, Keene continues, “The most important contribution made to Mishima’s artistic development by The Sound of Waves was that it demonstrated that classical literature, whether of Japan or the West, could serve as an effective substitute for personal experience,” including his modern versions of Nô plays.

There is a plot and action scenes (the storm at sea) and I find hornets averting Hatsue’s rape by Yasuo rather funny, though Mishima’s fiction is deficient in comedy. The novel has some of the insipidness I often find in the work of Mishima’s master and advocate, Kawabata along with the lyricism. I certainly like it more than I like The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (as much as I like that title, which I long thought was “fell into” rather than “fell from”) or Patriotism.

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The novel was filmed almost immediately (in 1954) by Taniguchi Senkichi with a then-notorious nude scene, and a four more times, not counting a 2003 anime version.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Love and politics in 1950s Japan

Utage no Ato/After the Banquet (1960, published in English, translated by Donald Keene, in 1963) is with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (the basis for Enjô/Conflagration), the most acclaimed novel by Mishima Yukio. Most of the bookis about the relationship between a retired diplomat, Soguchi Tuken, and Kazu, the owner of Setsugoan (After Snow Retreat), a chic restaurant with an impressive garden where a group of retired diplomats has a reunion. One, a former ambassador to Nazi Germany, has a stroke in the lavatory of the restaurant. The only single (widower) guest stays a while to help. Is struck by his once-elegant (in the English fashion), now shabby clothes and wants to take care of him. She has foresworn love after a career in which at least some of her advancement came from work she did on her back. It seem to me that there is much that is maternal in her attraction to Soguchi, though he does not seem to be seeking a new mother, and resists her spending money on him.

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He has agreed to let his energetic younger wife (a young 50-somthing in contrast to his old 60-something) continue to operate her successful business and sleep on the grounds there weeknights. When Soguchi decides he is going to run for office, Kazu (unbeknownst to him) throws her energy and resources into the campaign, starting before it is legal to do so (before the election is formally called). Soguchi is stiff and proper, but Kazu connects with lower-class voters, à la Eva Peron, eclipsing her prosaic husband devoid of the popular touch:
“The phrases from Kazu’s lips – ‘reform of the prefectural administration,’ ‘positive policies to combat unemployment,’ and the like – plummeted to the ground like swarms of winged ants which have lost the strength of their wings, but the words visible on the lips of the crowd dripped like red meat in the sunshine.”

(On the first page of the novel, Mishima wrote: “Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a mans resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm.” Neither the society nor her husband are prepared to accept such a dynamo unleashed in the political sphere.)

For a time Soguchi leads in polls, but the Conservative Party publishes a scurrilous book about Kazu’s sexual history and otherwise considerably outspends the Radical Party’s campaign for Soguchi. After he loses, he retires, but his wife is not ready for a quiet life. She is, as I mentioned, more than a decade younger, and accustomed to being among men (her customer base having been Conservative Party politicians), followed by a very active role campaigning (not just financing her husband’s campaign). She cares nothing about ideology, and has a much firmer understanding of how politics resembles (or is a form of) prostitution than her idealistic husband does.

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There is no depth psychology (not just Mishima, but most Japanese literature prefigured the noveau roman in chronicling objects—especially clothing, but also including menus—rather than exploring motivations). In particular, while Kazu’s feelings are detailed, the motivations of Soguchi, beyond seeking to be a public model of rectitude are not limned, and his expectations of a subservient wife seem foolish from the get-go as she more or less conquers him and is obviously a more than competent business owner. Also, she is more in love, eager to advance her husband (by any means, not just the patrician ones of which he approves). In contrast, he is not particularly in love and is totally indifferent to what his wife wants (for him or for herself), indeed is clueless about what that might be.

A third major character is Yamazaki, Kazu’s political mentor, a Radical Party operative accustomed to defeat by the money the Conservative Party uses (“Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the least surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road”). He advises both Soguchi and Kazu and appreciates her more than her husband does.

Still, the protagonist of the novel is Kazu and it focuses on her difficulties, not at all colluding the male privilege or taking a male perspective on female aspirations. (Also see the entirely female world Mishima created in “Madame de Sade” and Asako in  “Rokumeikan.”) Given Mishima’s horror about the ravages to the body of age that led to his suicide in 1970, the book is remarkably sympathetic to characters older than he would allow himself to become,

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The real-life model for Soguchi was Arita Hachirô, who had been Japanese Ambassador to Austria and Belgim, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Like Soguchi , he won a seat in the House of Rpresentative in 1953, ran and lost a campaign to be Governor of Tokyo in 1955. The married Arita had a notorious affair with a Ginza hostess. Arita won a suit for invasion of privacy by the novel, though it seems to me that there were major differences” Arita rose much higher in the government, his wife was dead when he took up with a hostess, and his attempt to become Governor of Tokyo was not a comeback and was not waged as a radical against his former partymates. And rather than retiring after defeat, he ran (and lost) again four years later. I don’t know how close to the real-life model Kazu was, but his political career did not end with the 1955 defeat.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Mishima’s “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea”

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The major 20th-century Japanese writers were notably kinky and obsessive: Tanizaki’s foot fetishism and coprophilia, Kawabata’s yens for young girls (pederasty), Mishima’s sadomasochism, the obsessive imaginings of suicide by Dazai and Mishima, the guilt carried by Oe. We’re talking about fiction? OK, but even if and writing may be “sublimation,” of desires not acted on, returning over and over to a theme and with such palpable excitement is revealing. And we know that the “suicidal ideation” was eventually acted upon by Dazai, Kawabata, and, most publicly, Mishima Yukio.

Mishima’s 1963 Gogo No Eikô, translated by future Mishima biographer John Nathan two years later as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. (The Japanese title means afternoon towing,” as in tugboats towing ocean-going vessels.) The merchant marine officer, Ryuji, is not the protagonist of the novel. Ryuji liked the sea, while most of the crew was sleeping, helped with that.

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While the ship on which he serves is docking in Yokohama, Fusako, a widow who runs a prosperous couture shop and her 13-year-old son Noboru come aboard and Ryuji gives them a tour of the boat. Fusako invites Ryuji to dinner in gratitude, and the process of being grounded, giving up on his vision of a heroic destiny, and settling for domesticity and heterosexual sex begins.

Noburo, who has been spying through a peephole he found in the wall between his room and his mother’s and continues when she entertains company, is revolted by the failure of Ryuji to live up to Noburo’s fantasy of the freedom of a seaman.

Mishima writes about the tedium of life on a merchant ship that was starting to wear on Ryuji, and about the hopes and curbing of their expression of Fusako. What is most vivid in the novel, however, is the feverish, puritanical views of Noburo within a very rigid hierarchy of a clique of 13-year-olds who abhor adulthood and its compromises, and experiment in purging any feelings of sympathy by such rites as slaughtering and dissecting a stray cat.

Noburo’s disappointment in the sailor turning into a father attempting to make him a pal is amplified by the group’s sinister, absolutist leader (a nihilist similar to princes of darkness in other Mishima fiction), and the path to “punishment” is inexorable (as is the path to destroying the beauty of the temple of the golden pavilion in Mishima’s other most famed novel, which also has a sinister amoral influence on the stutterer who will torch the titular national treasure).

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Mishima’s disgust for aging was central to his suicide in 1970 at the age of 45. In 1966 he wrote that “among my incurable convictions is the belief that the old are eternally ugly, the young eternally beautiful. The wisdom of the old is eternally murky, the actions of the young eternally transparent. The longer people live, the worse they become.” I don’t think the actions of the 13-year-old boys in “Sailor” are “transparent,” though their aesthetic/ethical code is a transparent cover for sadism and the nihilism the intensely arrogant chief is trying to inculcate in his followers.

The combination of quasi-incest, peeping, homoeroticism, narcissism, cruelty to animals, and murder was surely designed to shock and am I not at all convinced that Mishima was satirizing the juvenile delinquents or observing them as a zoologist (as Robert Musil seems to me to have been doing in The Young Törless, another unsettling novel of adolescent male cruelty, or William Golding with the younger savages he imagined loose of adult supervision in Lord of the Flies).

The voyeurism and drugged sex partners also are prominent in work by Tanizaki (The Key, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi) and Kawabata (The House of the Sleeping Beauties) and the necessity of evanescence of beauty is a leitmotif of Japanese culture (exemplified by the cult of the cherry blossom) that seems to be directly connected to the cult of suicide. Mishima was a part of both those belief systems, and in “playing soldiers” in his last years with a private army and advocating the most reactionary extremism, it is difficult not to read Sailor as a celebration of proto-fascism (for my generation, not his own or the older-than-him one he celebrated in Patriotism and The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, especially Runaway Horses). Absurd as the code of the puritanical young is, it is not all that different from the one the adult Mishima proclaimed before (very literally) cutting his life short.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray